As the excitement and interest about the infamous ocean liner Titanic and the 100th anniversary of its sinking reaches a zenith this weekend, I have been thinking about my own family story about the great ship. All families have stories that are told and handed down, and one of my grandfather's great tales was about his ticket to sail on the Titanic, an opportunity which he felt would fulfill all his hopes and dreams. Pop was set to sail on the great ship on April 20, 1912, away from all he had ever known and toward what he felt would be a grand future. Of course, fate had other plans.
Growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Pop lived in a tenement apartment with his eight siblings and his parents. The youngest of four sons, Pop got to go to school while his older brothers never did; they had to work as soon as they could get out on the street and do something to earn money. Pop's decided advantage was learning to read and write, something that would give him an edge in the years to come.
Pop had a fascination with the sea in large part due to his father Anthony, who worked as a longshoreman on the city's docks. Pop would go and watch his father working, see the ships great and small, and wish for the day he could cross that ocean. While many of his family and friends spoke about the dream of coming to America, the grim reality that he saw all around him was nothing like the hopeful stories that had inspired them all to come to the USA in the first place.
Unfortunately, Anthony died at 35 years old while working on the docks. Pop said it was probably a heart attack, the work being so horrendously arduous and the hours incredibly long. So what little money was coming in from my great-grandfather's salary was now gone; therefore, Pop's school days ended and he too hit the streets looking for work after having just completed third grade.
The gritty streets of Pop's New York in the late 1890s must have been an amalgam of every possible horror known about that period and a hell that cannot be imagined. From all the gruesome stories Pop told, his real New York made something like Martin Scorcese's film Gangs of New York seem like a church picnic. Pop saw all the cruelty, the poverty, the squalor, and the inequity that existed, registering it deep down but pushing forward because he had no other choice.